Confronting Challenges and Institutional Hierarchies as a Black Future RDN

Confronting Challenges and Institutional Hierarchies as a Black Future RDN - Food & Nutrition Magazine - Stone Soup
Photo Courtesy of Ashley Berthoumieux

Admittedly, my journey towards becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist has not been consistently filled with unrelenting passion and enthusiasm, despite my vested interest in nutrition. I’ve always recognized the important role nutrition plays in chronic disease prevention and health promotion, but the past few years of my education and training have highlighted the fact that my wellness as a Black woman is not a priority to many practitioners in the field. Confronting Challenges and Institutional Hierarchies as a Black Future RDN -

In December 2017, I presented the results of a survey I conducted as part of my capstone project for my master’s degree. While my research included participants from a diverse group of racial and ethnic backgrounds to closely mirror the demographic makeup of the American population, the rest of the students in my class presented projects where over 90 percent of their participants identified as white. I recall many of them laughing at the homogeneity of their sample and quickly moving to the next slide in their presentation, almost as if it were an insignificant afterthought. During such  moments, I was not only hyperaware that I was the sole Black student in the room, but I was seemingly the only one who cared about conducting an inclusive survey. With yet another microaggression, one student thanked me for adding some diversity to his research by being the only Black participant in his survey.

My experience is not unexpected given the racial distribution and inequalities that exist within the Academy of Nutrition of Dietetics leadership and the dietetics profession as a whole. According to the Commission on Dietetic Registration Registry Statistics, less than 3 percent of RDNs are Black, and while there seems to be a push by the Academy to increase diversity and inclusion, there are still gaps in practice. I’ve noticed a theme from the classroom to the exam room in this field. There’s not only a disproportionate number of white students and instructors in dietetic programs, but there’s also a disproportionate amount of white RDNs seeing patients in the hospital who are juxtaposed next to people of color stacking trays in the sub-basement kitchen; this is clear institutionalized racism.

As I’m completing rotations in my dietetic internship, these trends start to take toll on my morale. My passion for healthcare occasionally morphs into disappointment over the blatant racial inequities that are being perpetuated in this profession. Every role in health care and in the hospital is essential, but we cannot talk about diversity and inclusion when the conversation on nutrition is being dominated by white RDNs in the clinics, classrooms and conferences.

Nevertheless, there have been gains over the years of my training, and I do recognize that a number of white RDNs are taking the time to learn and grow when it comes to addressing social injustice within the profession. Notably, there are RDNs in my circle that have made the following efforts to combat this problem:

  1. Bringing up the lack of diversity and inclusion in dietetics during meetings instead of staying silent on the matter.
  2. Making simple yet meaningful statements, such as “I support you” and backing it up with an action plan to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in their programs and/or workforce.
  3. Increasing BIPOC representation on program advisory boards and in leadership roles.
  4. Creating presentations and/or webinars that include a diverse group of people in images.
  5. Participating in diversity, equity and inclusion training on topics related to BIPOC and LGBTQ+ populations.
  6. Demonstrating the same level of compassion and care to all patients, clients, students, etc.

These efforts show that ally-ship is most effective when it is not solely performative. Amplifying the marginalized voices of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ stakeholders strengthens the profession and brings a more holistic approach to the practice of nutrition and dietetics; it does not go unnoticed.

Overall, I think there are still strides to be made to truly improve diversity, equity and inclusion in our occupation, including lowering the educational and training costs to pursue this career path to avoid further gate-keeping privilege, but it’s promising that many RDNs are trying to make meaningful change. It’s time for all Academy constituents to be represented in spite of the profession’s demographic distribution, and that evolution starts with each one of us.

The team behind Food & Nutrition Magazine® aims to amplify the voices of people of color and other underrepresented individuals in nutrition and dietetics and highlight the experiences of RDNs, NDTRs, dietetic interns and nutrition and dietetics students. Our goal is not only to stand in solidarity, but also help inform our readers and increase awareness about the importance of diversity in the field of nutrition and dietetics. We know it’s not enough, but we hope it’s a step in the right direction that will support meaningful conversations and a positive change in the profession. 

Ashley Berthoumieux
Ashley Berthoumieux is a dietetic intern and an appointed member of the program’s advisory board at a prominent hospital in New York City. She graduated with a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from New York University, and previously earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Hispanic studies from Columbia University. Prior to pursuing a career in nutrition and dietetics, Ashley worked in clinical trials for academic hospitals in New York City. She believes nutrition plays a significant role in people’s everyday lives and is passionate about relaying important health information to those in her community. Ashley also holds a strong interest in health equity issues and wants to see greater representation of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ professionals in healthcare. During her personal time, Ashley loves being with her husband and daughter, traveling, eating a variety of cultural foods, and catching up on all her favorite shows.